nytheatre.com review by Larry Kunofsky
October 5, 2006
I had very high expectations for seeing Peer Gynt in the Park—I was hoping that this special concert performance would help me to finally understand this play. I had never seen the play before, and every time I've tried to read it, I've found myself dizzy with confusion. Well, I had a very nice evening sitting in the brisk October night, listening to the American Symphony Orchestra, and watching a cast of 150 actors perform Henrik Ibsen's play, surrounded by the best set for any theatre anywhere (Central Park). But the presentation overall has left me even more confused about the play than I was before, and doubly confused about the production itself.
I don't think that I have some kind of mental or emotional block when it comes to Peer Gynt. Let's face it, to an English speaking audience, Peer Gynt is a very confusing play. Ibsen is better known in these parts (and justly considered one of the world's greatest dramatists) for his naturalistic plays such as A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler. These plays are accessible and universal in their appeal. Unlike Ibsen's drawing room plays, though, Peer Gynt involves fantastical elements that lend themselves more to the reader's imagination than to a literal staging. This verse play, based on Norwegian folktales, inevitably gets lost, to some degree, in translation. The text is also ridiculously long (it makes The Iceman Cometh look like a one-act) and therefore can only be staged with some pretty major cuts.
However, Peer Gynt is an important play, epic in scale, and as insightful as an Ibsen play can be (which is pretty insightful) about humanity and existence. The challenge of how this play—which Ibsen himself never expected to see produced—can be staged, is half the fun for theatre artists and audiences alike. Another plus: composer Edvard Grieg's incidental music for the play is actually essential to it; the music that was written to accompany the play is so great that we can view the play as incidental to the music without reducing the importance of either play or score.
This presentation of Peer Gynt at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park got my hopes up because it's the Lake Gålå production of Peer Gynt, which has been presented at Norway's Peer Gynt Festival as part of an ongoing tradition. There is some authenticity here, and some gravitas. This Peer Gynt seemed like the real deal.
Unfortunately, even though the production is billed as a multimedia concert version of the play, it seems to be just highlights from a much clearer and more complete presentation. Instead of a simple concert rendition, and in lieu of a production of the play with even an attempt at capturing the meaning of the play, we're left with a quasi-concert performance-slash-quasi-staging of the play, with music, and images projected on a big screen. This does not a concert presentation, nor a production, nor a "multimedia" piece make. The American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Timothy Myers, is wonderful. The cast of the play is magnificent. But with all this talent and support behind this production, it tries to be every kind of Peer Gynt and ends up being no kind of Peer Gynt that makes any real sense or impact.
Putting my inner Ibsen-geek aside for a moment, forgetting about the frustrating task of understanding Peer Gynt, and focusing on the above-mentioned sheer talent behind this production, the first half of the evening, I must admit, was a real treat. If you spend an evening listening to the American Symphony Orchestra, you have had a good evening. So, too, with Grieg's music. Even if you're a classical music neophyte (such as myself, alas), you'll be pleasantly surprised by the familiarity of these melodies (probably from the same source that I know them from—Looney Tunes), and energized by the music's freshness and vitality.
And then there's the cast. The major players embody their roles the way only a sharp, focused repertory can—with command and utter dynamism. Plus, there are 150 actors to populate this production, to which I must say: Uh, wow. I wish that they had been used to greater effect, but seeing 150 people running around onstage in pretty much any context is fun.
In the first half of the play, which is far more realized in this production than the second, we meet Peer (played by Svein Sturla Hungnes, who also directs), a rakish country boy. Peer gallivants about the countryside and then tells tall tales to his mother, Aase (Kari Simonsen) to get out of doing his chores. He goes to a wedding where none of the maiden lasses will dance with him, and so he winds up carrying on with the bride, which alienates him from the village folk. On the lam, Peer hooks up with the Greenclad Woman (Mari Maurstad), the daughter of the Troll King, and pretty soon irks as much of the ire of the Trolls as he did of the humans in his hometown. And so he travels the world over, until he winds up at home just long enough to say goodbye to his dying mother (a scene played with great sympathy).
So far, so good. But after intermission, we are rushed through the rest of the play (the part with the real meat in it) without any feel for the actual structure of or feeling for the play itself. After Peer establishes himself in the world as a self-made tycoon, he meets the Button Molder (played here by Stein Grønli), a supernatural being who collects souls as if they were loose buttons on the coat of the world. Peer begs the Button Molder not to collect him just yet, and so Peer is challenged to find out who he is before moving on to the next world. This is the part of the play that both confuses and intrigues me the most. There is something so deep and provocative about this conceit—which seems like a weird hybrid of the medieval play Everyman, the novel A Christmas Carol, and the film It's A Wonderful Life—and yet, I never seem to quite "get it" when I try to read the script. This production is no help. The second half of the production presents an unevenly, almost arbitrarily, cut version of the play, but worse than that, the second half of the evening seems rushed, as if everyone decided that, hey, this is October, we're in the Park, and it's getting cold.
I'm hesitant to blame the direction, since Hungnes, who is onstage almost all the time, clearly loves this play and seems to be having a very good time with it, but I question the thought behind such a rush job. Perhaps a dramaturg could have helped make cuts that would keep the evening at a manageable length without losing almost all of the play's intent. There are too many moments where the play is not only glossed over, but where desperate measures seem to have been taken to reach a non-Norwegian audience. There's even a musical sequence composed by Alte Halstensen where Peer tries to do some rap and hip-hop. I found this embarrassing and a little condescending.
Throughout the evening, images projected on a big screen (the multimedia aspect of the projection) depict either nature scenes of bucolic glory or filmed sequences of the action of the play that are far more fleshed out than the action we get to see onstage. The nature scenes were a little dull, and as a visual backdrop for the music, reminded me of late-night TV commercials for classical music compilations. The images of the actors were confusing, as if they were scenes from a film presented without context, and only seemed to remind us that there is more to this production than we New Yorkers will get to see. Which is really a shame, because what works here, works really well. It's just not enough. Peer Gynt is a play about a man in search of who he is. This production left me with the same question.